WASHINGTON, May 18, 2018 — How do you get President Donald Trump to nominate you to lead the government’s second-largest bureaucracy? It helps to tell reporters nice things about him.
Less than 24 hours after he appeared in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to thank the president for donating his second-quarter salary to the Department of Veterans Affairs, President Trump surprised Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie by revealing his intention to nominate him as the 10th person to lead the department since it became a cabinet-level agency.
As Wilkie sat unaware in the audience during a White House event on prison reform, Trump began reading prepared remarks, including a list of cabinet officials.
“Joining us today are several members of my Cabinet who are working diligently on this issue: Attorney General Sessions, Secretary Zinke, Secretary Acosta, Secretary Perry, Secretary DeVos, and Acting Secretary Wilkie, who, by the way, has done an incredible job at the VA,” Trump said.
But while what came out of the president’s mouth next may not have been a surprise to journalists and other Trump-watchers who’ve gotten used to Trump’s habit of announcing decisions and personnel changes any time a camera is pointed at him, it was, at least according to the president, a surprise to Wilkie.
“I’ll be informing him in a little while — he doesn’t know this yet — that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be Secretary of the Veterans Administration.”
Aware of what he’d just done, Trump apologized for ruining the surprise but said he’d meet with Wilkie later before rattling off a list of his administration’s VA-related accomplishments.
“We’re very close to getting Choice approved,” Trump said, referring to the VA Mission Act, which is awaiting Senate approval after passing the House earlier this week, “and we had just approved [the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act] which, for almost 40 years, they could not get approved.”
A Pentagon insider who served in the George W. Bush administration, Wilkie’s official biography notes he is the son of a cavalry officer and grew up at Fort Bragg.
He is also the second person the president has nominated to lead the VA following a performance before the White House press corps.
Trump previously tapped the head of the White House Medical Unit, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, to take over the Veterans Affairs department after the March 31 departure of Dr. David Shulkin, the sole cabinet-level holdover from the Obama administration and only Trump cabinet official to be unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
The White House said Shulkin resigned amid controversy over a July 2017 trip to Europe on which he brought his wife, though he later said he’d been fired for resisting Trump’s plans to privatize the department, which is the largest integrated health care system in the United States.
Trump’s decision to pick Jackson, then his personal physician, despite his having never managed anything larger than the 40-person White House unit which provides care to the president, vice president, their families, and occasionally staff or anyone else at the White House in need of medical attention, came three months after Jackson briefed reporters on results of the president’s annual medical examination.
Jackson’s performance raised some eyebrows after he told reporters that Trump, who does not exercise and is a frequent consumer of fast food, “might live to be 200 years old.” He attributed Trump’s health, which he called “excellent,” to the president’s “great genes.”
As a non-physician, Wilkie gave reporters no insight into Trump’s health or genetics, but like Jackson, he had only good things to say about the president when he accompanied White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the briefing room.
Wilkie, who appeared in his capacity as Acting VA Secretary, spoke to reporters after Sanders revealed that Trump, who has pledged to donate his $400,000 salary to charity, would be donating the prior three months of earnings to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I want to thank you for President Trump’s generosity,” he told Sanders before turning to the assembled press before lavishing praise on the president.
“President Trump understands the critical role of caregivers in meeting the essential needs of America’s veterans,” Wilkie said, later adding: “I am deeply grateful to President Trump for providing me the opportunity to serve America’s veterans and for his generosity in supporting them.”
Despite Efforts To Calm Americans’ Fears, Trump’s Coronavirus Approval Drops
President Donald Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States is leaving Americans less than impressed.
A Morning Consult poll released Tuesday shows less than half of voters surveyed — 49 percent — approve of the president’s approach to dealing with the threat posed by the virus’ spread in the US.
The results of that poll, taken from February 28 to March 1, showed a marked drop from the 56 percent of voters who said they approved of Trump’s actions when surveyed from February 24 to February 26th, a decline caused by a 9-point drop in independents approving of his performance, as well as a 7-point drop among Democrats.
The same February 28-March 1 poll showed the number of voters who disapprove rising to 37 percent, which leaves the president’s net approval on the coronavirus issue at 12 points. That’s less than one third of what it was three weeks ago.
The president’s declining approval numbers on coronavirus come despite his attempts to project calm during two press conferences last week, during which he attacked Democrats for supposedly politicizing the issue.
Trump also tried to stem discontent in the financial markets by putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating his administration’s response to the outbreak.
But Pence has a checkered history when it comes to public health matters. As governor of Indiana in 2015, the future Vice President presided over an outbreak of HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — among intravenous drug users that saw over 200 people infected.
Although Pence was advised by public health experts to declare a public health emergency and issue emergency regulations to allow needle exchanges to operate in Indiana (which bans them).
Citing his own belief that needle exchange programs encourage drug use (a belief which is contradicted by most public health experts), Pence refused to allow any such emergency measures until roughly two months after the outbreak peaked, when he approved an exchange which would operate for 30 days.
In 2018, Yale University epidemiologists found that the outbreak could have been stemmed had Pence and other state officials acted faster.
“Our findings suggest that with earlier action the actual number of infections recorded in Scott County — 215 — might have been brought down to fewer than 56, if the state had acted in 2013, or to fewer than 10 infections, if they had responded to the [hepatitis C] outbreak in 2010-2011,” the study’s lead author, Forrest W. Crawford, said at the time. “Instead, they cut funding for the last HIV testing provider in the county.”
Another of the paper’s authors, Yale University’s Gregg Gonsalves, tweeted on Wednesday that Trump’s decision to place Pence in charge of coronavirus response ““speaks to a lack of seriousness by the White House.”
When asked on Saturday whether he and Pence would pledge that politics and ideology would play no role in determining how the Trump administration responds to a coronavirus outbreak, Trump refused to do so.
Speaking in his own defense, Pence downplayed the seriousness of the 2015 outbreak, which he said occurred “in a very small town.”
“I think my experience as a governor, dealing with two different infectious diseases and seeing the vital role that local healthcare providers play, that federal officials play, it has really informed me,” he said.
Trump’s Attempt To Delay Bolton Book Unlikely To Pass Muster With Courts, Experts Say
President Trump is personally seeking to block publication of his former national security adviser’s book by asserting that any conversation with him is by its very nature classified.
The heretofore unprecedented theory would prevent Ambassador John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser until last fall, from publishing his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” until either Trump relents and allows it or a judge intervenes after litigation that would undoubtedly delay the book’s publication until well past its announced March 7 release date.
According to The Washington Post, Trump has told aides that he will endeavor to block the book’s publication on the grounds that his conversations with Bolton are classified in their entirety, no matter the topic.
While the president has broad authority to declare information classified — or to declassify it — an assertion that all conversations between him and his national security advisor are classified would contradict the posture taken by the career National Security Council staff tasked with reviewing the manuscript prior to publication.
In a letter sent last month to Bolton attorney Charles Cooper, NSC records office senior director Ellen Knight warned that Bolton’s book “appear[ed] to contain significant amounts of classified information” which had been deemed top secret, but also maintained that the NSC would assist with revisions to excise that information so as to “move forward as expeditiously as possible.”
Knight, a career official whose role places her in charge of the prepublication review process, told Cooper that NSC staff would “do our best to work with you to ensure your client’s ability to tell his story in a manner that protects U.S. national security.”
Joshua Geltzer, a Georgetown University Law Center visiting professor who served as the NSC’s Senior Director for Counterterrorism from 2015-2017, said an assertion that any conversations between Bolton and the president are per se classified was unlikely to pass legal muster.
“At best, that’s mushing classification together with executive privilege,” he said. “Sometimes people think of [classification] as a form of privilege, but it’s not the same as the privilege that attaches to the communications between the President and his closest advisor.”
Geltzer said he would hope that the career NSC officials who’d normally review Bolton’s book would do their jobs “as they understand them to be best and correctly done,” but conceded that Trump could, in theory, overrule them.
If the President wants to overrule them, he definitely has that authority in many, many areas. But I would hope that their instinct is still to do the job correctly, rather than to do it incorrectly.”
Steven Aftergood, a physicist who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said claiming any conversation with the president is classified would be an “unusually aggressive and expansive view of classification,” but said such an assertion would not necessarily pass legal muster because the White House would need to indicate to Bolton what information in the book is classified “with a degree of specificity.”
Knight, Aftergood said, would most likely not tolerate such an abuse of the prepublication review process because she is “a career professional who has spent decades distinguishing carefully between what is classified and what is not.”
If Bolton is forced to file suit to ensure publication of his manuscript, Geltzer said judges might not take kindly to such a sweeping declaration of classification in the post-Snowden era.
A judge, he said, could ask for the government to submit an ex parte affidavit — one that is submitted to the court without a copy being seen by the other side — explaining why certain information has been deemed classified at a level that disclosure would cause “grave harm” to national security.
But forcing Bolton to take the White House to court could backfire, he explained.
“Are they really going to claim that John Bolton, a hard, right conservative, is trying to jeopardize national security by disclosing classified information? Who is really going to believe that?” he asked.
“Everyone will understand what what game is being played right now if publication is is blocked, or significantly deferred,” he said. If his book is is delayed for months or longer, everyone will understand that it’s not because of national security reasons, but because of political ones.”
Party-Line Votes Stop Schumer’s Subpoena Push
The Senate has rejected a succession of amendments to the rules governing President Trump’s impeachment trial which would direct Chief Justice John Roberts to issue subpoenas to the White House and several executive branch agencies which refused to honor subpoenas issued during the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Senators voted along party lines, 53-47 to table a series of amendments offered to the proposed Republican-authored trial rules by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, which would have compelled the White House, the State Department, and the Office of Management and Budget to produce documents for the Senate to consider as evidence when deciding whether to remove Trump from office for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, condemned Democrats for objecting to the “very reasonable proposal” of using a process similar to that used to try President Bill Clinton in 1999.
“This seems to be a time for Adam Schiff and the house managers to attack the president and lecture the American people,” he said.
While speaking to reporters during a break in the trial, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar hit back against White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who during part of his arguments on Tuesday remarked that “some of you” (referring to senators who are currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination) “should be in Iowa” rather than sitting in the Senate chamber.
“I’ve made clear from the very beginning that I’ve got to do my constitutional duty,” she said.